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what's the beef?

Don’t look a gift of horse meat in the mouth. It’s good for you

Earlier this month, horrified supermarket consumers all over Britain discovered that they’d been eating mouthfuls of horse meat thinking it was beef. The beginning of the scandal cantered, rather than bolted, out of the gates.

It all began when food safety inspectors working with the Irish government revealed that they’d found “traces” of horse DNA in samples of beef burgers sold at Tesco supermarkets. This, it turned out, was disgusting enough for a nation of horse lovers. (The British Equestrian Trade Association informs that in 2011, 1.6 million people in Britain rode a horse at least once a month. BETA estimates that there are around half a million private British horse owners.)

And then the scandal jumped to another level. The latest investigations suggest that certain shipments of products labelled as containing “beef” were, in reality, 100% horse meat. All horse. No beef.

All over the UK, consumers have begun galloping back to the nearest store to return products. And many thousands will, no doubt, sue.

UK authorities have tried to rein in the panic somewhat by reassuring consumers that the horse meat does not constitute a food safety risk. The meat, they seem to say, is actually safe to eat. Unless the meat sample has excessive amounts of phenylbutazone or “bute.” Bute is an anti-inflammatory once approved for human use but now used only in animals and especially in horses. The drug is now restricted from food items consumed by humans because of “a low risk of serious effects – such as aplastic anaemia.”

But if horse meat is safe to eat, and presumably it is at least as tasty as supermarket beef—after all nobody found out until DNA tests were carried out—why don’t more people eat it?

In fact, millions of people all over the world eat horse meat regularly. China, Mexico, Russia, Italy and Kazhakstan are the top five horse meat consuming nations in the world. And unlike quinoa, this isn’t a new fad. People have been eating horses for hundreds of thousands of years.

Half a million years ago several individuals, belonging to the Homo Heidelbergensis species, settled near Boxgrove in West Sussex, England. In prehistoric times, this site—that later became a quarry and then one of the richest archaeological sites in the UK—was home to several large animals such as horses, giant deer and wolves, which explains why Boxgrove Man, as these early hominids are called, moved in.

At the site archaeologists have discovered horse bones covered in cut marks, which they believe, were produced when Boxgrove Men butchered dead animals with stone tools for food.

Millennia later, horse is still a popular food item in many countries. In 2011, a little more than 719 thousand tons of horse meat was processed all over the world, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). (For comparison, more than 89 million tons of chicken meat were processed the same year.) One-fourth of that was processed in China. FAO data suggests that another 78 countries processed horse meat. (This data presumably does not include horse meat that is mistakenly sold as beef.)

In Japan, sushi made with horse meat, called basashi, is a delicacy. According to website TripAdvisor, the 35th highest rated restaurant in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is Hot Horse, an eatery that is famous for its horse burger. It also serves a horse hot dog.

Reviewers on TripAdvisor say that the meat tastes a lot like beef. The French eat it raw and minced. Horse meat is also somewhat popular in Canada

But which is healthier? Horse or beef?

I used data-analysis website WolframAlpha.com to draw up approximate nutrition charts for 100 grams of horse meat and 100 grams of beef. Do keep in mind that this is a broad comparison. Depending on what part of the animal you sample from, both beef and horse meat can have somewhat varying nutritional content.

Here’s what I found:

1. Horse meat is leaner than beef. A 100 grams of horse meat has 6 grams of fat in total. Beef has 13 grams.

2. Horse has less cholesterol (68mg vs. 92mg) and less sodium (55mg vs. 84 mg.).

3. Both meats are almost identical when it comes to being a source of protein (28g).

4. Horse is a slightly richer source of vitamin C, iron, thiamin, phosphorous and omega-3 fatty acids.

5. Beef is a mildly better source of zinc, folate and niacin.

Overall, horse meat seems to be a leaner, healthier alternative to beef.

And what does it taste like?

In 2007, Time magazine columnist Joel Stein ordered some horse meat online. He ate it, and then wrote about it:

It turned out to be pretty awesome—a sweet, rich, superlean, oddly soft meat, closer to beef than venison. I put some slices over a salad of arugula with olive oil and a splash of lemon juice and some caramelized onions. It was like a livelier, lighter braseola.

So what exactly is the UK complaining about?

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